“There are two things which I am 99 per cent sure about when it comes to senior students,” says Jeff King, deputy principal at Rangitikei College. “One, they do not know how many credits they have, and two, they will know exactly where their phone is at any given moment.”
It was this line of thinking that led King and Wasim Talim, an information systems student at Victoria University, to create NCEA Pal, an educational app that allows students to keep track of their credits in real time as opposed to logging in to the NZQA website or KAMAR, where the data is entered by teachers and administrators.
“It started by accident really,” King says. “I was talking to the principal about the frustrations of students not keeping track of their credits, and she said what we need is an app, and I thought ‘she is completely right’.”
At that stage, says King, building an app was something he knew absolutely nothing about, but he contacted Talim, a former student with whom he had collaborated on previous venture. Over the next six months, King and Talim discussed and planned out what the app would look like and how it would function.
“One thing that we discovered was important, was that it had to have an offline function because of the cost of data,” says King. “Many students still don’t have reliable data so if they had to be connected to the internet for the app to function, students wouldn’t be interested.”
So, the app is designed to be downloaded by students and then function completely offline apart from when updates are needed.
Following the development and design phases, the first real prototype came out in January 2014. From there, it has been through various iterations to improve its usability or sort out bugs. Talim explains that a code is very fragile: “You change one small feature and that can have a huge impact on another area of functionality.”
The two persisted, and the app was finally published in the iOS and Google Play app stores in August last year.
“We weren’t really sure how it would go and I remember saying it would be great to get 500 installs by the end of the year,” says Talim.
They were quickly gaining more than twice that number a day. Within the first two weeks it was the top ranked educational app on the New Zealand iOS store and had more downloads per day than the likes of Snapchat.
They sent it out to different schools through a network of teachers and students. “To be honest some teachers don’t quite get it,” King says. “Some I’ve talked to commented how students could just go to NZQA or that they could add in assessments that they hadn’t passed. They don’t seem to understand that it is about student autonomy and learners having control over their learning.”
By contrast, other schools have been proactive about promoting it to students and parents through newsletters and Facebook pages. The app has the support of NZQA and the Ministry of Education, with Minister Hekia Parata sending an email congratulating them on the great work.
King and Talim have funded the entire project themselves. While they admit that building an app is not cheap, they want the app to remain free for students.
They believe NCEA Pal allows students to be more actively involved in their own education and that it fills a big gap in the market. When a student receives a result from a teacher they can enter the results straight into their phone. It is in real time and they don’t have to wait for it to be exported by schools to the NZQA site. In some cases, if their teacher knows it is a definite pass, a student can enter in the mark, then confirm the grade at a later date.
However, King believes it is not the instant gratification that is the key, but the fact that the students are managing their own results.
“The front end of the NZC talks about the concept of ‘managing self’ and NCEA Pal allows this to happen. All of a sudden students are able to input and manage their own credits and not have to rely on their teachers, and this is the key to it in my mind,” he says.
“I had a student, who has been quite disengaged with education and in a bit of trouble, come up to me the other day at school to show me the app. He had loaded all his credits onto it and was admiring his first three excellence credits on his phone. What can I say; that is what it is all about,” King says.
Development on the NCEA Pal continues. King says they have been working hard over the break and will release version 2, which has a number of new features, in March. Eventually they hope to build in vocational pathways so students can see where their credits can take them.
NCEA Pal is available for free download at iTunes and the Google app store.